Nick Tompkins and Maro Itoje made their Premiership debuts together against Leicester Tigers in 2014 and played in the same England Under-20 team that won the Junior World Championship later that summer. Since then their trajectories have diverged significantly.
Itoje has gone on to star for the senior England team and the Lions while Tompkins has had to be content with a handful of cameos behind Saracens’ first-choice centres Brad Barritt, Marcelo Bosch and Duncan Taylor. Yet what cameos they have become.
This time last year, the 22-year-old was named man of the match in the Champions Cup against Scarlets after being drafted into the matchday 23 during the warm-up. On Saturday night, he repeated the same trick, this time coming off the bench to see off a spirited Ospreys side.
After replacing the injured Taylor on 34 minutes, Tompkins had a hand in all three of Saracens’ second-half scores.
A penalty try and yellow card was awarded when Tompkins’ pass to Liam Williams was knocked on by Dan Evans before that intended combination did link up through Tompkins’ wondrous no-look offload. With seven minutes to go, his try effectively made the game safe with a cute diagonal line. So how long can Tompkins can be satisfied as a super sub and occasional starter?
“There’s definitely frustration but then all you have to look at and realise that I’m young as well,” Tompkins said. “What you learn from a club like this, what you get from the knowledge and the people. The application from the coaches is second to none and you don’t get that anywhere else. If I’m patient and bide my time and keep working hard, I’ll hopefully get my shot. I trust in them, they trust in me but at the same time I still need to keep learning.”
That will be music to the ears of Mark McCall, the director of rugby, who earlier this season lamented the impatience of young players wanting to be like Itoje.
“It just feels to me at the moment that everyone is short term in their outlook,” McCall said. “If you get sensible, wise advice that you are prepared to do your development at a gradual speed if that’s what is required then you will get what you deserve.”
That is the path that Tompkins seems willing to follow. Taylor’s injury should open more opportunities in the short term while Bosch, at 33, will not bock his path forever. Of course Itoje and Farrell are outliers of 21-year-olds capable of bridging the giant leap to international rugby with ease. A more pertinent example is of how Jamie George served his apprenticeship under Schalk Brits and John Smit.
“I suppose as a young guy you can get a bit impatient and you think you deserve maybe more than you should,” Tompkins said. “I’ve definitely had times where I think ‘I deserve that’ but you’ve got to look back at why are these guys there in front of you and what do they do better and then you’ve got to learn and work on these things.”
In truth, Tompkins was a fortunate recipient of the man-of-the-match honours given the majority of the outstanding performers were in Ospreys colours.
Scrum half Tom Habberfield pulled off two try-saving tackles while Sam Cross was a sensation at openside. Part of the Team GB side that won silver at the Rio Olympics, Cross was promoted into the team for his debut when Justin Tipuric pulled out in the warm-up and finished up on the wing where he scored a try two minutes from time that secured two deserved bonus points for Ospreys.